A while back I did a series of posts (here, here, and here) essentially saying knowledge of Chinese culture is secondary to knowledge of business.  In drawing this conclusion, I was thinking much more in terms of negotiating a deal than in marketing a consumer product.

In marketing a consumer product, knowing the culture can and usually is of crucial importance and it seems some Western companies are forgetting this in marketing their products in China.  KFC is the latest to fall victim to a cultural faux pas in its marketing.  This article in the Independent (London), entitled, “KFC faces backlash in China over chickenburger advert,”[link no longer exists] discusses how KFC offended many in China by using a Taoist monk in this television commercial to proclaim that a KFC chickenburger to be a “masterpiece.”   Problem is that many Chinese are offended by the use of this commercialized “monk,” both because he resembles a monk and becuase he resembles Fu Qingzhu, who helped defend China against invaders in the early 17th century.  Another problem is that most Taoists are vegetarians.

The article goes on to quote Zhao Shu, vice-chairman of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society, as saying that “whenever companies enter foreign markets, they must never forget one principle: ‘to respect the target customer’s cultural traditions.'”  This does make for good business.

The Useless Tree blog, which is subtitled, Ancient Chinese thought in Modern American life, did an excellent post on this issue, stating that the whole thing is being blown out of proportion as we are “too far down the reform-and-opening road to return to some notion that culture is off limits to advertising.”  I agree that culture is not off limits to advertising, yet at the same time, since advertising is meant to bring in customers, not repel them, good advertising is cognizant of cultural sensibilities.  Good business demands this. China culture matters.

For those wanting to know more about advertising and marketing in China, I recommend the veritable Danwei and the Chinese Word of Mouth Blog.

  • The Chinese have a long journey ahead of them if they are to learn how best to market to the West. But when they finally learn the formula they will be hard to stop. Conversely, I know westerners here who, after 10 years of business dealings in China, can’t catch a cab to a neaby hotel without hre sassistance of a translator.
    I do consulting on cultural marketing, especially over the Internet, and am often surprised by the resistance to marketing paradigm shifts needed by western companies.
    China and India may be the last great business frontiers for us…It behooves us to learn a bit more about Feng Shui, Meat Free, and Guanxi…

  • Lonnie (OMB) —
    I know it is hard for many to believe, but I too know of people who have been living in China/Korea/Japan for ten years who cannot speak a word. Not one word. Always reminds me of when I was living in Istanbul and the American woman who lived in our apartment complex who never even learned one single number. I ran into her one day at the bakery where she was SCREAMING “THREE” (in English of course) to the baker, and then turned to me and said, “I find that if I talk loud enough they always understand me.” I kid you not. Dead serious.
    So you as a cultural marketer have to deal with the Westerner who refuses to believe China can be any different than the West and the way to sell popcorn is to link it to baseball and apple pie, but I as a lawyer have to deal with the Westerner who, for some unknown reason, allows him or herself to become convinced that China is like nowhere else on earth and that everyone can be completely trusted and contracts are completely unnecessary.
    So on the one hand, there are those who treat China as though it is no different from anywhere else (when, of course, it is) and then there are those who treat it as though it is a foreign planet where no rules of common sense whatsoever apply (while they do). Is there a commonality?
    At the same time, though, I would venture to say that right now the West is better at marketing to China than the reverse, but that may eventually change. The reality is that cross-cultural marketing is never easy.

  • Duncan

    I think one needs to draw a distinction between really adverts that really outrage your average Chinese citizen (see Toyota’s Prado) and ones that merely generate controversy. KFC seems to be quite good at doing adverts that prompt media frenzy (i.e. free avdertising) without actually generating boycotts or lost sales. All in all not a bad result…

  • Doug

    this is one of my favorite topics–and I think I know why: because whether it is the issue is culture vs. business practices, culture vs. legal institutionalism or (local) culture vs. globalization and standardization, there is always plenty of ammunition on both sides.
    I agree with Dan that certain things (e.g. skillful contract drafting, protection of trademarks through registration)are crucial to know and practice; they are part of a system of laws that is increasingly globalized. In other words, by and large, they work well. They ease transnational business transactions and that has to be a good thing.
    And, more importantly, good things in one place tend to become good things elsewhere. This is what is called a “meme.” My wills & trusts teacher, Professor Stake is very interested in the biologist, Richard Dawkins, who coined the term. Memes are good ideas that get copied in other places; like genes, they replicate. Of course, not all these ideas may be “good” in the sense that they are beneficial to human life (evil ideas related to extremism, terrorism, etc..) may also spread. But they are self-propagating. Certain things simply work well.
    On the other hand, the world is not a homogenous place, and there often is no clear idea of what is the “best” practice at a certain time. Nor do we even know why certain memes are picked up and transplanted elsewhere.
    So we do have to be interested in culture, simply because a) people in different parts of the world are not wired memetically in the same way that the rest of the world is; they may import ideas, but end up changing how these ideas work in practice. b)to choose a very simplistic example, just because a better mousetrap exists doesn’t mean a particular group of people will adopt it. Changing a practice is often about overcoming inertia. Nor should we overlook a tendency toward irratonality in our species.

  • Duncan —
    Thanks for checking in. Really good point. I think you are right.

  • Doug —
    Thanks for checking in. Well said!

  • F-ck China Culture Lessons. Give Me Anthony Bourdain With No Reservations.

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